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Morning News Brief: Democrats Sue Trump, GOP Health Care Plan's Future

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is about to face another lawsuit.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the plaintiffs are 196 senators and representatives. They're all Democrats, although they say they will invite Republicans. An organizer of this lawsuit, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, says President Trump's business dealings violate the Constitution because he's got worldwide businesses, and they receive payments from foreign governments.

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RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: President Trump has repeatedly and flagrantly violated this clause. He has thumbed his nose at its plain text and, in doing so, thumbed his nose also at the American people.

MARTIN: So what does this suit mean? We are going to talk with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson now. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, there.

MARTIN: Yet another lawsuit - how significant is this one?

LIASSON: Well, this one is a little different from the other ones that have been filed. This is the largest number of members of Congress to ever sue a sitting president. And as you just heard, they - the Democrats believe that he is ignoring the clause in the Constitution known as the Emoluments Clause, which says federal officials cannot take any gifts, or emoluments, from foreign powers. And they say the president is illegally profiting from his businesses, like hotels where foreign diplomats stay. This one could be significant because of the nature of the plaintiffs.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk more about that because the issue with these emoluments lawsuits - and there are two others that have already been filed. But the issue tends to be, does a group of people - does an individual have standing? What is the harm...

LIASSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...That they have suffered? So what is the harm these Democrats have suffered?

LIASSON: Right. These - the Democrats are arguing that, as plaintiffs, they are members of Congress who do have legal standing - that is, the right to sue - because they are constitutional officers. And they say they've been deprived of their constitutional right, as members of Congress, to rule on whether an emolument is being taken or not. And the interesting thing about this is they're joining the other lawsuits filed by Democrats - Democratic attorneys general who say that convention centers, for instance, in their states have been put at a disadvantage...

MARTIN: This is D.C. and Maryland.

LIASSON: ...To compete with the president - D.C. and Maryland. They're also - there's another suit by private individuals, like hotel owners, who say they're harmed because they're competing with the president. The legal strategy is to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and hope that one of these plaintiffs will be found to have standing. That's the legal strategy - just try...

MARTIN: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Every way to get at this.

INSKEEP: Just one little reminder here - of course, the normal way that members of Congress would be expected to show a constitutional concern with the president of the United States is through impeachment. But that's - no one sees that happening here in a case where...

MARTIN: Republicans...

INSKEEP: ...Both houses of Congress...

MARTIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Are controlled by the president's party.

MARTIN: The president was supposed to have separated himself from his business dealings, though, Mara. I mean, there was...

LIASSON: That's right.

MARTIN: ...A press conference. I remember there was...

LIASSON: That's right. There was a...

MARTIN: ...Paperwork used as a prop.

LIASSON: There was a a press conference, a lot of paperwork. He never divested. He did say he came up with this legal structure to separate himself. But the Department of Justice is now arguing that he can't and that he's not in violation of the Emoluments Clause because it's OK for him to take payments, for instance, from foreign diplomats. They say it's impossible for him to separate out the money that comes into his hotels from foreign entities.

INSKEEP: And it's not just hotels. We should remember also there are trademark issues in China. There are Chinese banks that have lent to real estate entities in the United States that Trump has a stake in.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: There's a lot of businesses.

MARTIN: OK, Mara, stay with us because we want to get your take on the next story, too, which is the ongoing effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

INSKEEP: Yeah. You remember House Republicans passed a bill some weeks ago and sent it to the Senate? Like Obamacare, this bill subsidizes health insurance, but it distributes the subsidies differently, offers less to people with modest incomes and also takes hundreds of billions of dollars out of Medicaid, which Republicans want. They want to save money. But it's been deeply unpopular. And as Senate Republicans write their own version, they're working behind closed doors. They say they want to pass their version of the bill by July. But Democrats, like Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, say there's no transparency.

MAGGIE HASSAN: I come from the state where every single bill is required to get a hearing, so I continue to be amazed that we would talk about a bill that impacts so many people and a sixth of our economy. But we do not have even an outline of that bill for us to be able to examine ourselves.

MARTIN: So Democrats are frustrated. We're going to talk with health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak, who is here now. Hi, Alison.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Hi, there.

MARTIN: Republicans in the Senate want this bill acted on by the Fourth of July. That's real soon. So how's that going work?

KODJAK: Well, what they're trying to do, as you said, is they're drafting the bill behind closed doors. They're trying to get everything in place. And they're sending bits and pieces of it to the Congressional Budget Office to figure out the budget impact and how many people may or may not lose coverage in order to have everything ready so that when they make the bill public and show it to the rest of the Senate, that they will be able to take a vote in just a couple of days. What they're trying to avoid is having people debate the bill before they're ready to take a vote. They want to avoid controversy. They're having a lot of trouble getting enough support.

MARTIN: So Mara, though, Republicans like to point out that they were in the same boat when Obamacare was being crafted. Is that right?

LIASSON: Well, it's a little bit different. Obamacare had years, actually, of hearings. And they went through a lot more regular order. To me, the most interesting health care development over the last 24 hours is what President Obama - Trump said when he met with a group of Republican senators at the White House. He is reported to have told them that the House health care bill that the senators are now looking to adjust is mean and the Senate version should be more generous.

And he told them he - that they're getting terrible press on this bill, they should have maybe more robust tax credits. Now, this is the same House bill that he stood in the Rose Garden not too long ago, when it passed, and called it terrific. So he's now complicating the senators' job. He's saying, make it more generous. But he's also saying, you've got to pass it because if you don't, you're going to be crushed in the midterms.

MARTIN: So what happens, Alison? What does a more generous plan look like, and can they get it done by July 4?

KODJAK: Well, the House bill, the Congressional Budget Office said, would basically result in 23 million fewer people having insurance. So a more generous bill would not have that many people lose their insurance, and that's going to be a tough sell if it's also not going to increase the budget deficit.

MARTIN: OK. Thanks to both of you. Mara Liasson, national political correspondent, and Alison Kodjak - she covers health care policy for NPR. Thanks, ladies.

KODJAK: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: And before we move on, we want to let you know that we are following developments around a massive fire at a residential building in London. You can get updates from NPR and your local member station throughout the morning.

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MARTIN: Now an admission by the U.S. military.

INSKEEP: Which involves a substance used as a weapon.

HUGH MCASLAN: We have utilized white phosphorus to screen areas within west Mosul to get civilians out safely.

INSKEEP: That's Brigadier General Hugh McAslan, who is with U.S.-led coalition forces fighting the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq. This is the first confirmation that white phosphorus has been used in that rather large city. It's been used, we're told, elsewhere in Iraq.

MARTIN: The brigadier general spoke with NPR's Alison Meuse. And she is now on the line from Beirut.

Alison, what is white phosphorus?

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: Hi, guys. White phosphorus is a highly flammable substance. When it hits the air, it bursts into flame and creates smoke almost immediately. So it's legality in war is tied to the way it's used. It can be legally deployed for signaling or as an obscurant to hide movements. And that's what the brigadier was talking about, to - that it was used as a smokescreen to protect civilians as they flee ISIS areas. But the legality comes into question when it's used in a city. It can cause deadly burn wounds down to the muscle and bone. The U.N. says there are tens of thousands of people still trapped in that last ISIS-held enclave. So...

MARTIN: So...

MEUSE: ...That's why Amnesty International says the use of white phosphorus in western Mosul could even constitute a war crime.

MARTIN: But this is complicated because, yes, it's being deployed in a city and it could be causing physical harm to the civilians who are trapped there, but the U.S.-led coalition is saying, we're trying to save those lives. We're deploying this so they can escape.

MEUSE: Well, exactly. The coalition and Iraqi forces are also using other means to try to bring civilians to safety, from dropping leaflets on where to go to using megaphones to tell people. And the coalition general says almost 30,000 people have made that journey safely in the last few days. But human rights groups say there are non-lethal alternatives for creating a smokescreen, and they're really urging U.S.-led forces, both in Iraq and in Syria, to put civilian protection as the top priority.

MARTIN: We've been hearing about the effort to oust ISIS from Mosul for so long now, Alison. Just remind us how much of that city ISIS still controls at this point.

MEUSE: So the fight is now limited to western Mosul. And the general says that ISIS has been cornered into what he said was about 10 percent of that area. But again, this is Iraq's second-largest city. There's still maybe tens of thousands of people there. And the IDP situation, with nearly half a million people...

MARTIN: Internally displaced people, yeah.

MEUSE: ...Having fled, is - exactly, internally displaced people. You have about half a million people that fled western Mosul alone, so there's also a major humanitarian crisis with international agencies overwhelmed. But the fight is hopefully nearing conclusion according to the coalition.

MARTIN: NPR's Alison Meuse on Skype from Beirut. Alison, thanks so much.

MEUSE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.